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January 26, 2021

Is it time for Covid-19 vaccine passports?

Daily Briefing

    Major tech companies Microsoft, Oracle, and Salesforce are partnering with the Mayo Clinic and other leading health care companies to develop technology for digital Covid-19 vaccine passports, which would indicate whether an individual has been vaccinated against the disease. But some experts worry the technology is being developed too soon.

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    Inside the push to develop digital vaccine passports

    The collaboration between the tech and health care companies, called the Vaccination Credential Initiative, aims to develop technology that would store a secure copy of an individual's vaccination records in a digital wallet on a person's smartphone. The technology would also feature a printable QR code that would include W3C-standards verifiable credentials for individuals to use as a backup to the digital feature or if they don't want to store their immunization record on their phone.

    Companies involved in the effort say the vaccine passports could allow people who've received Covid-19 vaccines to begin resuming some pre-pandemic activities in a safe manner.

    "We wanted to build something that will empower consumers to take charge and have control and be able to manage their vaccination information in the way that they feel most comfortable, but will give them the freedom to start to get back to their life," Joan Harvey, president of care solutions at Evernorth, the health services arm of Cigna and a partner in the initiative, said.

    Similar efforts are underway around the world. For instance, the European Union (EU) last week announced that it wants to develop a framework and platform by the end of January that would allow EU countries to use vaccination certificates "to ensure the right medical follow-up as well as the monitoring of possible adverse effects." The EU added that the platform eventually "may facilitate other cross-border applications of such certificates in the future," but acknowledged that it's "premature to envisage the use of vaccine certificates for other purposes than health protection" at this time.

    Why some experts say the moves are premature

    Some experts have expressed concerns about the early pushes to develop technology and frameworks for digital vaccine passports, however, saying the moves may be premature.

    For example, experts have noted that, while data suggests that people who receive Covid-19 vaccines are less likely to develop a severe case of the disease, there is insufficient data on whether vaccinated individuals are less likely to transmit the novel coronavirus to others, CNBC reports. As such, it's unclear whether people who've been vaccinated against Covid-19 can safely gather or resume other activities without potentially spreading the coronavirus to individuals who haven't been vaccinated.

    And with vaccination efforts progressing more slowly than expected—and only a limited supply of authorized Covid-19 vaccines available at this time—some experts have said companies' main focus should be on helping the public get vaccinated, rather than on developing digital vaccine passports.

    For instance, L.J Tan, CSO at the Immunization Action Coalition, said, "I think it's premature to be talking about how we get people these immunizations certificates." Tan added, "Our focus should be on getting people vaccinated. Once we get enough people vaccinated then we can leverage that vaccinated pool for analysis."

    Nita Farahany, a professor and director of the Initiative for Science & Society at Duke University, said she worries that launching vaccine passports could create a "two-tiered society," in which individuals who've received a vaccine have access to public places and jobs, while others don't. "I'm just opposed to it right now, when there is a significant limitation on the number of people who can get access to Covid vaccines," she said.

    Farahany added, however, that vaccine passports could be useful down the road, once Covid-19 vaccines are widely available.

    Similarly, Privacy International has issued a warning saying that any requirements of proof of vaccination would not be fair "until everyone has access to an effective vaccine."

    "Governments must find alternatives to delivering vaccination schemes that do not perpetuate and reinforce exclusionary and discriminatory practices," the group added.

    Separately, Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, also expressed concerns about the privacy of digitized vaccination records. He said the tech industry should wait to develop these technologies until public health officials provide them with direction.

    "It's completely unnecessary," Fox Cahn said of the current efforts. "It's more of the same failed technosolutionism that we've seen throughout this pandemic" (Hadavi, CNBC, 1/18; Zakrzewski, "Power Post," Washington Post, 1/15; Lomas, Tech Crunch, 1/19).

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